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Letters to the Editor, December 1998

This a traditional letter column. You are encouraged to write a letter of comment on anything that you find worthy of comment. It will (may) be published in this column along with my reply. As editor I reserve the right to delete material; however I will not alter the undeleted material. E-mail to me that solely references the contents of this site will be assumed to be publishable mail. All other e-mail is assumed to be private. And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication. Oh yes, letters of appreciation for the scholarly resources provided by this site will be handled very discreetly. This page contains the correspondence for December 1998.

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From: Mergirll
Date: 11/28/98
Subj: Doctors from Hell

Your article on doctors from hell is very interesting. What are a patient's rights?

The collected bits in the article are funny rather than serious - they reflect ineptness in using the English language rather than ineptness in medical practice.

Patients have a lot of rights - the right to ask for an explanation for a proposed course of treatment, the right to ask for a second opinion, and above all, the right to expect competent treatment. And the right to pay the bill.

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From: Shane Hoversten (
Date: 12/1/98
The Sausage Makers of Philadelphia

This was a great story. Especially impressive was the stylistic devices to emulate the old 19th century books. Did you study anything before attempting it? It's really quite amazing how well you do it.

Thank you. I can't say that I studied anything before writing the story; I simply wrote it and the writing flowed quite naturally. I have read the authors that everyone reads - Bunyan, Swift, and Defoe - and the tone is quite striking although I may have an ear for that style. There are some tricks of the trade - particular usages that are distinctive. Thus "I desired him to", "I enquired of him". English spellings, e.g. "enquired" rather than "inquired" help the effect. The main thing is, though, that is a rhythm to the style. If you but try to write a few sentences in the style of Swift then you (or at least I) find it easy to continue on in that style.

The beginning paragraphs are almost directly stolen (from Swift IIRC) in which the traveller is advised to marry. He does so but the passages reveal indifference to his wife, who is not even named.

I had recently read _Inferno_ by Dante so there is a bit of that in there too, e.g. V__ (Vergil, the guide), but mostly in the form of echoes.

The story, by the way, has an odd genesis. A while back I was reading a book by Gasche, a collection of essays on Derrida. One of the essays dealt with Derrida's commentary on Hegel's theory of the Bond (as in the bond of marriage.) It seems that Hegel concludes that Christian Marriage is the most perfect form of the Bond. This struck me as an example of a philosopher arriving at a predetermined conclusion and I conceived of ("conceived of" is one of *those* phrasings)the metaphor of philosophy as sausage and philosophers as sausage makers with a magic sausage making machine.

I set the idea aside until the other day when it occurred to me to write an allegory about the history of philosophy - mostly because I had pulled a book off the shelf on the history of philsophy.

Now you know more than you probably wanted to know.

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From: Bob Barlow (
Date: 12/2/98
Subj: Piltdown Man

Just read your work and collected research on Piltdown. Thank you so much for sharing the fruit of your labors. You have provided interested parties with information that may help them draw some reasonable conclusions. Are you aware that the 'Piltdown" man continued to be featured in Public School texts for years after. If you do know that, have you located an instance in your research? I pray godspeed on your efforts and appreciate your effort.

I didn't know that specifically but I would be surprised if it hadn't happened. Textbooks, particularly lower level textbooks, are often years behind the times. It's rather unfortunate, really; standards of accuracy are often lower than they ought to be.

Anyway, thanks for the kind comments. My web site seems to be popular because it has a lot of good jokes. I like to think, though, that it provides some scholarly resources also.

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From: Michael Turyn (
Date: 12/2/98
Subj: An argument that life is designed

I 'm afraid you have not convinced me, as I would say that you have implicitly said, "This is a neat way to design things," and so have created a designer in your own image---a smarter designer than is posited in older arguments for design, and definitely more technically apt than we are these days, but still definitely a human.

As a non- (in fact, anti-) Christian, I might say that the infinite cruelty and uselessness of Hell is perhaps their best argument for the existence of their God---no humanly-meaningful sense or purpose can be gleaned from the perpetuation of the institution---except that I see it as a simple exaggeration of human cruelty (or impotence in the face of suffering).

You will notice that that page is listed under "not so serious articles". It is, in effect, a joke. However you miss the trick which is not to posit a designer in the image of a human but rather is to enumerate features of life and then say "This is how a designer would do this".

I don't do religious arguments in my pages or, rather, I do, but I'm the only one who gets to make them.

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From: Michael Turyn (
Date: 12/2/98
Subj: Creationism, The American Disease

Great point (that is to say, I use it too) about advertising; when I bring it up I often quote Burroughs', "It is easier to degrade the consumer than to improve the product."

I disagree; it is seldom hard to improve the product. Indeed, management often has to restrain its technical people from improving the product. The real issue is that there is more money and profit in degrading the consumer than there is in improving the product. The money comes in when the sale is made, not when the product is built.
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From: Michael Turyn (
Date: 12/2/98
Subj: C.S. Lewis

In my limited but noticeable reading of Lewis, I 've not come across the problem of people who support the Proper Order of Things (e.g., an idealised, feudal, Europe) and ideas of Good and Evil (masturbation baaad, smiting blasphemers good) which only uh "happens" to jibe with their local prejudices.

I once heard a Professor of Psychology explain his faith-journey from atheism onward; with a compeltely straight face, he step-by-step explained the close reasoning that led him to conclude that Greek Orthodoxy was the One True Way. He didn't seem even a bit abashed that this was the religion in which he was raised....

Odd, isn't it, that people raised in countries where Christianity is the predominant religion always seem to discover that Christianity is the true religion whereas in Muslim countries they discover that Islam is the true religion and so on and so forth. What is even remarkable is that they so often can give very good reasons why the religion that they were raised in is the only true and proper religion.
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From: Michael Turyn (
Date: 12/2/98
Subj: Men who never were

George Spelvin---an actor doubling against union rules.
Alan Smithee---a director does n't get his way, has this name put on instead.

There is even a book out on the Smithee movies. There are actually some good movies directed by Smithee; there are also a lot of outstanding turkeys. There is even a movie in which Smithee is listed as the director twice.
You know about Cordwainer Bird.

"See You Next Wednesday" is a non-existent movie with references in all Joh

That one I knew about. Hollywood is big on slipping in these little bits.
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From: Chip Hitchcock (
Date: 12/3/98
Fashionable Nonsense

3rd line of "Science Wars" section says

It is not a refereed journal, i.e., the articles in Social Text are passed through peer review.
What is the difference? I was under the impression from the discussions about various scientific papers (and their occasional publication in non-technical magazines) that peer review was refereeing. (Obviously (as last weekend's sports events demonstrated), much depends on the competence of the reviewers; in journal terms this includes selecting people qualified to comment on the paper -- no easy task with some papers, cf Adams's remark about a mathematics understood by five other people, three of whom weren't allowed sharp objects.)
It's a typo. Thanks for catching it. I've got a page explaining what peer review is and what it's limitations are (you can find it listed in the origins and essays pages). Peer review actually refers to two different phenomena - peer review of articles and peer review of proposals.

Peer review may be done single-blind or double-blind. In single-blind the author does not know who the reviewers are but they know who the author is. In double-blind neither knows who the other is. Double-blind is better. There was a recent study which pretty much established that people rated papers higher if the author was male. In many fields it doesn't matter whether it is single-blind or double-blind - everybody in the field knows everybody else and can recognize their individual styles.

Ask Suford about her friend (I think it is Suford that I am thinking of) who remarked of some abstruse result that it was well understood; there were half a dozen people in the world who knew it.

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From: Bullock
Date: 12/7/98
Subj: Your Site

I really enjoyed your pages, but you are hard on us old time programmers. I started on a 4k and 16k ibm 1460, using autocoder (assembly language), in 1964. Spent the next 30 years using cobol, fortran and jovial, plus assembly and machine language. It also fed the family which was the primary importance. But I ramble!

Keep the work going because we all need a place to go that is enjoyable.

Being an old time programmer myself, I'm entitled to be hard on old time programmers. I never did any cobol but I have done fortran, jovial, PL/I, C, a spattering of other HOL's, scripting languages, and assembler and machine languages. OS's from MVS down to bare iron real time systems. My favorite: Whirlwind machine language. You have to love a machine with 16 op codes.

Anyway I'm pleased that you like the site. I have a sneaking suspicion that there is no other site quite like it. Probably a good thing.

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From: gburke
Date: 12/10/98
Subj: russian airplane drops cow on japanese fishing trawler

I have been looking for this darwin nomination. do you have it?

I've seen it and I have it in my files somewhere but I don't have it on a web page. I'm pretty sure that it appeared in News Of The Weird.

From: Jeffrey Hasley
Date: 12/9/98
Creationist FAQ

I just read the item in your web site called creationist FAQ. I realize it is satirical but wanted to comment anyway. I am surprised by how many people are unaware of the following information. There is much scientific response to all the proposed questions from the creationist point of view. If interested check out the book : The Science of God by Gerald Shroeder or this website ( The book goes into much more scientific detail )

It's interesting and fun - Jewish exegenesis of the Torah is stylish. However, when you come down to it, commentary of this kind has enormous latitude to make interpretations come out the way one wants them to.
There is also
This is a different matter. Said site contains material from some of the more prominent faux creationists. Someday I mean to write an essay entitled "Why Truth Doesn't Matter" - the essence of which is that to most people doesn't matter. In particular, both to creationists and post-modernists truth in affairs of serious belief does not matter; it suffices to have a story couched in convincing sophistry that accords with that which one desires to believe.
Many Christians aren't non-thinkers. We have just come to a different conclusion.
Even so. Do not forget that many Christians who are thinkers have no problem with evolution and the rest of science. And do not forget that many a fine thinker starts with a conclusion and works his way skillfully to arrive at that conclusion. To paraphrase Aristotle, Man is a rationalizing animal.

... continued on next rock on December 11, 1998

I might have been incomplete in what I wrote. I wasn't as much referencing to the interpretation of the Torah as I was the scientific analysis of the Six days of creation (the bottom of the page). This is the main thrust of his book. The fact that the passage of 15 billion years on earth coincides with six 24 hour earth days at the center of the big bang. As well as how modern paleontology, archaeology and cosmology matches up to the biblical description of creation when General Relativity is used to match up the time discrepancy. This measurement isn't open to interpretation. It is a measurement developed from peer reviewed scientific data ( according to the author ). I checked out some of the mathematics involved myself an it appears reasonable.

The problem with all of this is that the connection is rooted in an interpretation of symbolism that can be adjusted at need. For example, it is by no means certain that the universe is 15 billion years old - best current estimates are a little less than that but they are only best current estimates. The point is that whatever the age turns out to be when it is finally pinned down with more accuracy, the arguments of the author can be modified to fit. They are ad hoc, after the fact explanations. BTW I presume you did not mean to imply that the Earth is 15 billion years old; the best current estimates of the age of the Earth is 4.55 billion years.

I should say that I also have no problem with science I do however, has a problem with the present theories on macro-evolution. As far as I know ( please correct me if I am wrong) there is no direct evidence to explain inter-species evolution.

You are wrong. I really don't want to go into lots of detail in private correspondence so I won't. One problem is that I don't really know what you mean by "direct evidence to explain inter-species evolution". Do we know, for example, the nature of reproductive isolating mechanisms? We do, in specifically studied instances. Do we understand the genetic mechanisms underlying those reproductive isolating mechanisms? Again, in some instances where they have been studied in detail, we do. Have there been studies of how gene flow and population isolation operate in a natural setting? There have. Do we understand enough to account for the history of life in detail? No.

I agree that some of the more creative writers can make an essay say what they want but the data says otherwise.

But how can you say that "the data says otherwise" when you have no great understanding or knowledge of what the data is?

Lets face it some modern Darwinist sometimes take as much creative license with scientific findings as anybody.

This is a statement that is true only because it is phrased using vague qualifiers. I will note as a general remark that there is a real difference between popular science exposition and science.

Until Darwinism can be explained how life can appear, and evolve, to its present state and in the manner in which it is said to have evolved within the age of the earth, through purely probabilistic means, it is at the same scientific state as creationism.

This is false and it is, I think, important to understand why it is false. Creationism is a term used to cover a number of different theses, varying from Young Earth Creationism (which asserts that Genesis is to be read literally and says that the Earth is only a few thousand years old) to Old Earth Creationism (which grants the old age of the Earth but claims that evolution was guided) to forms of Deism (which basically assume that the universe was started initially by a Deity and evolved without intervention thereafter.) At a minimum, when one makes statements like the above, one should make clear what is meant by creationism.

Be that as it may, the scope of the theory of evolution does not include the origin of life per se. It is possible that the origin of life was not due to abiotic chemistry - it may have been seeded by aliens or directly created by a Deity or have some other origin that no-one has thought of. Irrespective of life got started, it evolved afterwards. Appeals to the issue of the origin of life are not to the point. As a side note, the preponderance of evidence strongly suggests that life originated naturally without external intervention. This is, however, very much an open question.

The real problem with your assertion, though, lies in the claim (in effect) that unless "Darwinism" provides a complete and definitive explanation of the history of life and the course of evolution it is unscientific.

Yes we have fossils which represent the state of different species at various times but no mechanism to change the genome of one species to the genome of another.

This is false. The problem in considering speciation are not with changing genomes; this happens and is observed to happen. Nor is it with an absence of mechanisms. There are quite a number of known mechanisms. The real problems lie with understanding in the relative importance of different mechanisms and their precise interaction.

It seem to me intermediary genomes ( if they could be generated in the first place ), being environmentally unsuccessful, wouldn't have been around long enough to change to the more successful species.

Two errors here are (a) the presumption that intermediary genomes could not be "generated" and (b) that they would not be environmentally successful.

Too bad the math in Darwinism doesn't have the same success as General Relativity and the Bible does in the first paragraph in this message.

I should hope not. As a more general comment there is a real difference between the role of mathematics in biology and physics. Physics deals with the laws of behaviour of entities which are exactly alike, e.g., all electrons have the same charge, the same mass, et cetera. Biology deals with aggregates of entities, all of which are different, and all of which have complex individual structures.
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From: Charles Goodwin
Date: 12/18/98
Subj: Baudrillard

Note: My comments here are terse because I plan to do an article on the Baudrillard passage.

With reference to the following quote: "Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity, deflects history definitely from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes."

The intended meaning of this is quite clear. Note: Acceleration and linearity here are not terms from physics.
Sokal and Bricmont (S&B) are assuming that Baudrillard (JB) is using terms from physics in an attempt to make his ideas look more profound (or indeed to make them look like ideas).
They do indeed make that assumption (actually, mathematics rather than physics, but that is a nit.) It is a perjorative, unsubstantiated, and IMO unwarranted assumption. Baudrillard is talking about history; he is drawing on chaos theory in his analysis. His grasp of the mathematics is minimal; his grasp of the consequences of chaos theory is quite reasonable (for a layman) for the purposes at hand.
If true, this would make JB guilty of either intellectual dishonesty or at least of holding forth on a subject he knows very little about. However, it may not be true - in fact it definitely WON'T be true if JB has made the point that he is using these terms in a non-scientific way (i.e. in their everyday sense), or if this clear from the context; or if he has redefined the terms to have special meanings that apply to his particular field.

Well, he doesn't appear to be using these words in their everyday sense - the constant references to Chaos Theory indicate that he is trying to use terms like "exponential instability" and so on in a scientific way, in which case S&B are entitled to the criticisms they make (and your comment that physicists don't own words like chaos, turbulence and so on seems somewhat disingenuous, since they DO when the terms are being used in this way).

Also, there is nothing quoted in S&B to imply that JB has redefined the terms to have new meanings, specific to some theory of his own. Although I have some of JB's works I don't have the one being quoted (the Illusion of the End) and hence can't be sure if there is in fact a redefinition of the relevant terms - however, unless S&B are complete idiots, they would hardly have missed such redefinitions if they exist.

This seems to only leave S&B's original hypothesis - that JB is using scientific terms in a deliberate attempt "to give an appearance of profundity to trite observations."

S&B's analysis rests on a false dichotomy followed by an unsubstantiated speculation about JB's motives. (That is a general problem with the commentary in S&B.) I will drop you a note if and when I comment on said passages at length.
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